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Micah Zenko

A Translation Guide to Foreign Policy Gibberish

Wondering what is meant by 'all options are on the table'? A spokesperson will 'look into that' for you.

Saul Loeb/AFP
Saul Loeb/AFP

Evaluating U.S. foreign policy starts with the tricky task of understanding what U.S. foreign policy actually is. Analysts endowed with great forbearance can listen to the question-and-answer sessions with spokespersons from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon. These folks have the unenviable task of putting forward the best case for administration policies, while providing as little newsworthy information as possible.

This is accomplished by using words or phrases that are consistently positive, action-oriented, and ambiguous enough to maintain maximum flexibility as more information becomes available and goals and interests shift. To help the uninitiated better understand what government flacks really mean, please keep this foreign policy translator handy the next time you are watching C-SPAN.

"We’re evaluating the situation": We still haven’t done anything.

"Events on the ground are fluid": If I articulate an official position on what’s happening, somebody could get upset with my word choice.

"All options are on the table": Bombs.

"We can’t rule anything out": We retain the right to do anything and everything.

"Our position has been very clear": Let me re-read some nonspecific generalizations from the briefing book that don’t address your question.

"We welcome this debate": After harnessing the federal government’s resources to hide the issue, we’re going to dilute it with adjectives, already-public information, and selective leaking.

"We have serious concerns": The harshest possible condemnation of an American ally.

"Intolerable": Tolerable — obviously, since we’re still only talking about it.

"Policy X is not aimed at any one country": Policy X is aimed at China or Iran.

"We’re in close consultation with X": We’re going through the pretense of listening to others in an effort to spread the blame and burden.

 "I would refer you to…" (version one): See the earlier comments by a senior official that do not address your question.

"I would refer you to…" (version two): See the spokesperson at another agency who also will not answer your question.

"I haven’t read that report yet": We all read and discussed the report first thing this morning, but it raises uncomfortable questions that I won’t address.  

"Person X is free to speak their mind": Person X still doesn’t fully appreciate our very clear position; such people are often characterized as having "an agenda."

"I think you’re reading too much into this": Any news item conflicting with White House policy.

"I’m not in a position to comment here": An anonymous "official" can fill you in via a well-placed leak momentarily.

"I don’t have anything for you on that": That is a particularly uncomfortable question that of course I will not answer.

"I’m not going to prejudge the outcome": Deferring the articulation of any comments to describe an upcoming event.

"That’s an excellent question": The opening response to every non-answer.

"I will look into that": I probably won’t look into that, but feel free to ask again at tomorrow’s press briefing.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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